Sunday, March 30, 2014

AXA Ladies Sunday: 20-Year-Old Ayaka Watanabe Secures 1st JLPGA Victory with Birdie-Birdie-Eagle Finish

For most of the day today at the AXA Ladies, the final pairing and the entire final round looked like a victory lap for 28-year-old Saiki Fujita.  Her 2-shot lead on 20-year-old Ayaka Watanabe through 36 holes had grown to 5 by the time the final pairing reached the 4th tee and even a double bogey on the 356-yard par-4 6th--her 1st blemish since Friday, bringing her total to 1 bogey, 1 double, and 1 eagle for the week--only seemed to spur her on to even better golf, as she birdied her next 3 holes in a row to post a 33 on the front anyway.

So what if Watanabe bounced back with 2 late birdies to return to -8 or Bo-Mee Lee birdied 3 of her last 4 holes on the front to move to -9?  Fujita was -13 and cruising, with a gigantic 8-shot lead on hometown hero and 18-year-old Asuka Kashiwabara to boot.  And after matching Watanabe's and Kashiwabara's birdies on the 178-yard par-3 13th, Fujita's lead was 5 on Lee and Watanabe and 8 on Kashiwabara with only 5 holes left to play.  The only question seemed to be whether she'd get her 1st win in almost 3 years with 3 straight 67s or not.

But then Fujita bogeyed the 379-yard par 4 14th even as Kashiwabara birdied it and she lead Lee and Watanabe by 4 with 4 to play and Kashiwabara by 6.

And then she bogeyed the 388-yard par-4 15th right after Lee had birdied it.  Now it was only 2 on Lee with 3 to play, but at least it was still 3 on Watanabe and 5 on Kashiwabara, right?

Wrong.  Watanabe and Kashiwabara cut it to 2 and 4, respectively, with matching birdies on the 162-yard par-3 16th.  Then Watanabe followed it up with another birdie, this time on the 383-yard par-4 17th, to pull within 1 of Fujita and pass Lee, who had bogeyed it just minutes earlier to fall 3 shots off the pace.  So the only player Fujita had to worry about as they came to the tee of the 505-yard par 5 was Watanabe.  All Fujita had to do was birdie it to secure her 6th career JLPGA victory.

Instead, she bogeyed it.  And Watanabe eagled it!  Watanabe had turned a 5-shot deficit into 2-shot victory in a mere 5 holes!  Now that's how to make your 1st-ever JLPGA victory memorable!

What makes Watanabe's win even more impressive is that she had missed the cut badly the week before at the T-Point Ladies.  Just 8 days later, she joined the youth movement that's been redefining the JLPGA the last couple of years.  And she leaped to the 2nd spot on the 2014 JLPGA money list:

1. Onnarin Sattayabanphot ¥24.11M

2. Ayaka Watanabe ¥20.91M
3. Rikako Morita ¥20.42M
4. Yuki Ichinose ¥15.25M
5. Erina Hara ¥12.35M
6. Bo-Mee Lee ¥11.89M
7. Saiki Fujita ¥10.45M
8. Mami Fukuda ¥9.53M
9. Miki Sakai ¥9.17M
10. Asako Fujimoto ¥8.51M
11. Ji-Yai Shin 
12. Bo-Bae Song ¥6.91M
13. Mamiko Higa ¥6.88M
14. Airi Saitoh ¥6.67M
15. Sun-Ju Ahn ¥6.49M

Rui Kitada, whose bogey-free 69 enabled her to catch Kashiwabara in a tie for 4th at -8, is in the next spot after Ahn, while Asako Fujimoto and Erina Hara, who finished in T7 at -6 (1 shot behind Lala Anai and 1 ahead of defending champion Natsuka Hori) bring the total to 9 Japanese players at 26 or younger in the top 15 of the money list--and 7 under 25!  One of them, Okinawa's own Mamiko Higa, will be defending her title next week at the Yamaha Ladies.  The KLPGA's Hyo-Joo Kim will be one of the visiting players in the field.  Let's see if a Korean young gun can stop the Japanese young guns from running wild in the early stages of 2014.

[Update 1 (11:10 pm):  You have to watch this video of Watanabe's finish!  Her birdie on 17 came from an awesome approach from a fairway bunker and her eagle was a chip-in!


[Update 2 (11:26 pm):  This video covers the entire final hole plus the aftermath.  Thanks to my anonymous commenter for both links!]


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